Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

Doctor Who: The End of Time, Part I (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The End of Time, Part I originally aired in 2009.

The human race was always your favourite, Doctor. But now, there is no human race. There is only the Master race.

– the Master always did like a good pun

The problem with The End of Time isn’t a lack of good ideas. Indeed, there are far too many good ideas here. There are enough large concepts here to sustain an entire season of Davies’ Doctor Who, from the resurrection of the Master to the return of Gallifrey to the resurrection gate to Naismith to the Tenth Doctor’s impending mortality and quite a few more. The End of Time is bristling with so many ideas and concepts that only the truly outrageous examples really stick. Is that really the Tenth Doctor’s mother?

The End of Time is fundamentally flawed, but it remains intriguing. There’s a wealth of good ideas here that tend to get drowned out in the spectacle and fury of it all, a sense that Davies had a wealth of clever ideas but was unable to tie them into anything fully satisfying.

Ten cedes the floor...

Ten cedes the floor…

The idea of seeding the departure of the Tenth Doctor across a year of television was a great idea, in theory. In fact, one of my favourite long-form stories in Doctor Who is the linking theme of entropy and decay running through Tom Baker’s final season, as if the universe itself is trying to tell the Fourth Doctor that all things must pass. Then again, the Tom Baker’s departure after seven years in the role was a pretty big deal, so spending a year assuring the audience that the moment had been prepared for was vitally important.

David Tennant has had a similar impact on the franchise, to the point where Tennant is really the only version of the Doctor who can compete with Tom Baker in the public consciousness. As nice as it is when one of the other candidates pulls a surprise victory in those regular “favourite Doctor” polls, these remain statistical anomalies. David Tennant and Tom Baker are the perennial long-form champions – inside and outside of fandom.

Look, you can't win every poll...

Look, you can’t win every poll…

A quick glimpse at the inevitable polls for the 50th anniversary confirms this. The a global poll run by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society sided with Tom Baker. BBC America agreed. In both polls, Tennant placed second. On IGN, the poll favoured more modern iterations of the character, with Tennant winning and Tom Baker placing top among the classic era Doctors. The Radio Times poll placed Tennant at the top, with incumbent Matt Smith in second and Baker in third.

Of course, as with all opinion polls, there are various skewing factors. Doctor Who Appreciation Society skews more to older fans, while it’s quite likely the readers of BBC America are precisely the sort of quirky Anglophiles who would have watched Doctor Who on late night PBS. Similarly, the audience for IGN would skew younger, hence the disappointing showing for the classical performers. The Radio Times probably points to a more modern and trendy crowd.

Some cowboys in here...

Some cowboys in here…

Still, the trend is quite striking, and hard to argue with. Despite an abiding fondness for their interpretations of the character, Baker and Tennant don’t rank at the top of my own personal list; everybody has their favourites. And yet, despite that, these are the two actors who everybody thinks of when they hear the title Doctor Who. There’s a reason that the two featured in The Day of the Doctor and only the nerdiest of commentators bemoaned Christopher Eccleston’s absence while only Colin Baker bemoaned Colin Baker’s absence.

(That last remark sounds a little mean, and I don’t intend it as such. Colin Baker got a bit of a bum rap, and he’s done an astonishing amount to redeem his version of the Doctor in the years since he was dismissed. Anybody with a working knowledge of Doctor Who knows that Colin Baker was the least of the problems with that period in the show’s history; it’s just a shame that he was out front in that ridiculous outfit. At the same time, as much as we might appreciate Colin Baker, he’s not the Baker that the wider audience is looking for.)

Strapped in and ready for adventure...

Strapped in and ready for adventure…

So if Doctor Who took a year to prepare fans for Tom Baker’s departure in 1981, it makes sense that David Tennant’s departure would be a pretty big deal. Indeed, The End of Time airs almost thirty years later in an era of big television events. So David Tennant’s departure was always going to be an absolutely mammoth television event, on its own. This is a show that ends a regular season of television with a bombastic episode like Journey’s End. Imagine what a “special” piece of event television should look like. It would look like this.

So, there’s a huge amount of weight bearing down on The End of Time. David Tennant’s departure alone would be one thing, but it’s also the departure of Russell T. Davies. It’s not just the end of one of the world’s favourite iterations of the Time Lord, it’s the end of this particular incarnation of the show itself. Things will never be the same again. More than that, it’s coming at the end of a string of “specials” designed around various public holidays.

Happy slapping hoodies with ASBOs...

Happy slapping hoodies with ASBOs…

The End of Time isn’t just David Tennant’s finalé; The End of Time isn’t just Russell T. Davies’ finalé; The End of Time is both the Christmas and the New Year’s special of Doctor Who. That is event television built on top of event television. The amount of pressure bearing down on the two-parter is palpable, as Davies tries to balance character-driven drama with the spectacle-driven action that audiences have come to expect from Doctor Who.

The result is, quite frankly, an ungodly mess. Fulfilling the need to have a suitably iconic adversary throwing down with the Doctor, the Master returns. Of course, “that bloke from Life on Mars is hardly enough spectacle on his own. So suddenly we have a Master who can fire lasers out of his hands, who can leap buildings with a single bound and who can turn transparent on occasion. Essentially, he becomes a one-man spectacle-generating machine.

Oh, and there are explosions, too!

Oh, and there are explosions, too!

None of this is actually relevant to the plot. The Master uses his super-jumping to provide a suitably impressive visual while the Doctor chases him through the wasteland, and to leap maybe five metres across a room at the climax of the episode. The character occasionally mumbles about how he’s “hungry”, implying that his powers use up a great deal of energy and providing a nice piece of character work (of course the Master is always hungry!), but there’s absolutely no need for any of this, beyond providing some nice action telly.

However, The End of Time has to contort quite heavily to justify these elements. Davies crams a whole narrative about the botched resurrection of the Master into the first ten minutes. It’s a scene that involves a lot of exposition, as various characters reveal various plans to one another, a series of gambits competing against each other and piling up. In a single scene, we discover that not only is a cult conspiring to resurrect the Master, but that Lucy Saxon has figured this out and put her own counter-plan into effect.

That healthy green glow...

That healthy green glow…

The problem with this isn’t that it violates continuity or seems unfair. Davies set up the ring at the end of The Last of the Time Lords so that it could be used in a story like this. It makes sense that the Master would plan on resurrecting himself; after all, his character has a history of surviving – that was the point of Utopia. And it’s a nice character beat to see Lucy standing up to the man who abused her, revealing that he’s not as smart as he thinks that he is, and that she’s able to empower herself. All of this is good, in theory.

The problem is how Davies works all of this. All of this is played out in a few minutes of screen time, with no real grounding in anything in particular. It’s playing out an entire subplot in the space about three minutes, very conspicuously trying to push the narrative to where it needs to be. Coupled with the necessity of bringing a Christmas audience up to speed, it means The End of Time opens with an unhealthy dose of exposition.

We can see right through him...

We can see right through him…

In a way, it plays as something of an homage to Moffat’s The Curse of Fatal Death, where the Doctor and the Master are constantly outwitting each other without ever actually doing anything. The characters stand in a room and boast of their plans to one another. The reunion between the Master and Lucy isn’t taken to that absurd degree, but it’s not too hard to believe the similarity was intentional.

After all, Davies litters The End of Time with references and shout-outs to Moffat, creating a decidedly “timey wimey” sense that he’s almost homaging an era that will follow his own. Davies is a fan of Doctor Who, and he’s even a fan of the Doctor Who that will be produced after he leaves. For all that the Tenth Doctor’s angst (“I don’t want to go!”) can be seen as a reluctance to hand over the reins, it is quite clear that Davies wishes his successor the best of luck, and that he relishes the opportunity to be fannish.

An old Ood...

An old Ood…

So we get stuff like the Immortality Gate, which seems like an homage to the medical technology from Moffat’s The Empty Child“it transmits the medical template across the entire population.” We also get the none-too-subtle suggestion in The End of Time, Part II that the Weeping Angels are fallen Time Lords. Even if Moffat takes the Weeping Angels in an entirely different direction, it’s a nice way of Davies assuring us that the moment has been prepared for.

But, hey, let’s talk about the Master. Davies’ version of the Master is pretty spectacular, and is only really let down by the fact that he features in the two least popular of Davies’ big “event” stories. While the decision to give him super-powers is a weird way of pandering to the segment of the Christmas audience just looking for some nice post-turkey spectacle, the core of the character remains sound. Davies appreciates that the Master is intended as a mirror of the Doctor, and uses him quite well in that capacity.

The gate keeper...

The gate keeper…

Here, we see that the Master has established his own cult following, providing a nice contrast to the Doctor’s “Lonely God” routine. It’s an effective thematic element, even if it invites all sorts of logical plot questions. The End of Time seems to suggest that the entirety of the Cult of Saxon was in the prison basement when Lucy made her assassination attempt; was that the Master’s only safe-guard? It seems weird to see the character wandering abandoned in the wasteland after his resurrection.

Surely he had other plans for this contingency? Other connections? Other chapters of the cult at his disposal? Maybe even some money or materials cleverly hidden away for his inevitable resurrection? Like a lot of The End of Time, it falls apart if you think too hard about it, but the notion of the Master building a cult of personality around himself is perfectly in character and provides an effective juxtaposition with the Doctor.

Keep him on a tight leash...

Keep him on a tight leash…

Similarly, the Master’s fixation on survival – going so far as to plan his own resurrection – provides an effective point of comparison with the keen desperation felt by the Tenth Doctor at this point in the show’s run. While Roger Delgado remains the iconic version of the Master, a performer with enough charm to make a pantomime villain work, the Master always worked best as a character when clinging desperately to life. The show often struggled to make sense of his other motivations; power? wealthy? insanity?

This is the same version of the character from The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken, the Master who is terrified of dying, who is afraid of vanishing into nothingness. Resurrected, he babbles about that fear. “Never… Never. Never. Never. Never dying… Never dying! Never dying! Never dying! Never dying!” There’s a suggestion in The End of Time that the Master is driven almost as much by that fear as he is by the constant drum beat in his head.

His word is his Bond...

His word is his Bond…

Given that The End of Time explicitly identifies the drumbeat from The Sound of Drums as a piece of retroactive continuity introduced by the Time War, it makes sense to give the character an underlying motivation. Davies suggests that it is greed, as made explicit here with his babbling about food. It’s greed for power and control; but also greed for life itself. The Master is driven by a desire to survive and to dominate, both the universe and death itself.

As such, he makes an effective counterpart to the Doctor. The Waters of Mars saw the Doctor pushed too far by his own pending mortality, deciding to interfere with history as a means of exerting control over life and death. In those scenes, the Doctor appeared more like the Master, trying to bend the universe and reality itself to his will, treating human lives as playthings that exist to validate his own perspective and importance.

Snowed under...

Snowed under…

Speaking of humanity, it’s also worth noting that Davies revisits the idea of corruption from The Last of the Time Lords. Davies appreciates that the Master’s greatest victories over the Doctor are scored philosophically. In The Last of the Time Lords, he broke the Doctor by revealing that mankind would eventually become little more then child-like psychopaths. Here, he pastes his own template over humanity’s effectively turning mankind into an army of himself.

Ignoring the way that The End of Time, Part II never capitalises on this, and the way it dismisses it with a wave of Timothy Dalton’s hand, it’s not a bad idea. The Doctor’s cardinal virtue, according to Davies, is the way that he makes people better. He enables them. Rose, Martha, Jack and Donna would never have become the heroes that they are (or were) without his intervention. The Master does just the opposite. Rather than allowing people the opportunity to be all that they can be, he simply turns them into him.

Well suited to the task...

Well suited to the task…

So, the Master and Rassilon make suitable opponents for The End of Time. Both provide cautionary tales – warnings about just how desperate Time Lords can be while trying to avoid their own mortality. So confronting them allows the Doctor to come to terms with his own inevitable mortality. These clever thematic element prevents Davies’ “bait-and-switch” plotting from becoming too frustrating, as he makes most of The End of Time feel like a gigantic distraction from the regeneration we’ve all tuned in to see.

Because, in the end, The End of Time really revisits the regeneration paradigm that the show established in The Caves of Androzani. It’s about the Doctor deciding that somebody else’s life is more important than his own, and willingly sacrificing his own life to save a single person. For all that The End of Time teases the Master and Gallifrey, the whole point of the episode is about the Doctor’s willingness to sacrifice himself for Wilf in The End of Time, Part II.

King of the wasteland...

King of the wasteland…

And that means that pretty much an hour-and-a-half of the two-hour two-parter feels like Davies is inviting us to play a variation of the cup game. “Watch the cups!” he gleefully instructs as he places Wilf under a plastic cup he shuffles around the desk. “That one?” he asks us as we point to the cup we’re sure must contain Bernard Cribbens. “Too bad! The Master!” Try again? “Oh! Gallifrey and Timothy Dalton!”

These elements are thematically important, and they tie quite well into the Tenth Doctor’s emotional arc, which has been largely truncated by the realities behind the production of the specials. While his mortality was in the background of The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, the impending death of your lead character was hardly suitable holiday fare. The Davies era holiday specials were generally quite light, and rightly so – a nice accompaniment to turkey and wine and gravy.

To hell with the Nai-sayers...

To hell with the Nai-sayers…

In a parallel universe, David Tennant’s closing year played out across an anniversary season. The Next Doctor set things up nicely, pushing mortality to the front of the audience’s mind. The first two-parter of the season, Planet of the Dead, was a bit overly light – but it at least touched on the topic. There were two episodes following that which built up the theme, making sure that it was bubbling away before the second two-parter of the season. The Waters of Mars saw things get real, and ended with the Doctor facing his mortality.

A nice Doctor-lite episode followed The Waters of Mars, perhaps allowing us a glimpse of a struggling Tenth Doctor through the eyes of an innocent passer-by, maybe Wilf, providing a nice window into the Time Lord’s pending mortality and his rage against the dying of the light. Then we got a nice episode involving the shock resurrection of the Master, and the Doctor burying the Time Lord Victorious completely while still not at peace with his pending death.

Nobody interrupts the Doctor Who Christmas special in this house...

Nobody interrupts the Doctor Who Christmas special in this house…

In this alternate universe where Doctor Who managed a full broadcast season in 2009, all that set us up nicely for The End of Time. Davies’ last season finalé, the two-parter was notable for being even more bombastic than his last season-closer, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. But most of the heavy lifting had been done beforehand, most of the themes and character arcs set up, so we could simply sit back and enjoy the epic scale and big ides at play here.

Sadly, we don’t live in that alternate universe where these ideas were given the space they needed to develop organically, and all these developments were structured across thirteen episodes; well, to be fair, probably only in the final six. Instead, by necessity, we get all this packed into three hour-long specials that also have to meet the expectations of British holiday television, preventing too much heavy continuity and too much solemnity.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

It’s a shame, because there is a lot here that works. Davies does set up the stakes quite well, but also makes it quite clear that Wilf is the pivot here. “There is a man so scared,” the Ood explain as we flash to Wilf during their big “everything is broken” speech. The implication is that Wilf’s distress is just as important as the return of the Master or any vague cosmological threat. The universe might be at stake, but we should really be focusing on the terror of one ordinary man.

Davies reinforces the idea when the Doctor and Wilf have coffee together. He hits the idea with a sledgehammer, but it doesn’t really matter – he hits other plot points with heavier sledgehammers, so the conversation doesn’t feel as clumsy as it might a lower-key episode. Instead, while the Doctor and Wilf explicitly discuss the twine tying them together, it seems almost subtle. “No, we keep on meeting, Wilf,” the Doctor explains. “Over and over again like something’s still connecting us.”

Oh, mother have mercy!

Oh, mother have mercy!

This is a recurring theme towards the end of Davies’ tenure – a sense of narrative force as destiny at work. It happened with Donna as well, parking her car next to the Doctor and seemingly destined to meet up with him again – Davies suggesting that time was working backwards from Journey’s End to bring the two together. Moffat would push the concept up to eleven during his time on the show, and arguably go one step further by suggesting that the Doctor’s interactions with Rose were also subconsciously “timey wimey.”

“What’s so important about me?” Wilf asks, in a vital moment. The answer is, without being too indelicate, nothing. There is nothing special about Wilf. That’s what makes him so inherently special. He’s a perfectly normal person, and is as wonderful as that suggests – because there are no “perfectly normal people.” Here, the Tenth Doctor seems more than a bit passive-aggressive. “Exactly,” he replies. “Why you?”

More of him to love...

More of him to love…

Which brings us to the biggest problem with The End of Time. The Tenth Doctor is pretty hard to like here. That’s not necessarily a problem. After all, The Waters of Mars is about how scary and alien the Doctor can be in the wrong circumstances. The problem with The End of Time is that the episode’s big emotional climax really hinges on us still liking him as he adventures around the universe.

Instead, he still seems selfish and petty, albeit in a less direct way than he did at the climax of The Waters of Mars. The show never really deals with the Time Lord Victorious, because it’s quite clear that even Adelaide’s death didn’t quite deflate his ego and arrogance. The Tenth Doctor is a character who generally prances around telling people how wonderful they are; The Waters of Mars warns us about what happens when he starts deciding that certain people are “important” enough to be exempt from the rules of time, and features the Doctor receiving a lesson in humility. Or so it seems.

Bad Wilf...

Bad Wilf…

The End of Time presents us with a Doctor who appears to have barely scraped a passing grade on the lesson that the universe tried to teach him at the end of The Waters of Mars. He has managed to piece together that he doesn’t have the right to declare himself the Lord and Master of Time. He hasn’t learned that all people are special in their own way, not just the ones who shape history or have massive amounts of money. It’s a weird character to beat to try to fit into the space between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time.

It’s the kind of character beat that might make sense played out with a bit more nuance and a bit more space. After all, the Time Lord Victorious has been reined in, but the Tenth Doctor’s ego is still bubbling away. That requires a bit more room to breath than the space available in an already over-crowded Christmas special. It also means that the Tenth Doctor appears relatively unsympathetic during his regeneration story, which makes it quite awkward to watch. Especially when the character languishes in his departure longer than any of his predecessors.

"And so it was, that the Time Lords used the same interior decorators as the Old Republic..."

“And so it was, that the Time Lords used the same interior decorators as the Old Republic…”

Still, Davies works quite hard to integrate some of his favourite themes into these stories. As a capstone to the Davies era, class comes into play quite a bit. We know very little about Joshua Naismith beyond the fact that he is exceedingly wealthy and rich enough to get away with anything. (He also fits the mold of other Davies-era collector villains like Henry van Statten or the Absorbaloff.) Rather tellingly, the TARDIS materialises in his stables.

More than that, though, Davies really emphasises class structure among the Time Lords – which makes sense, given that they call themselves Time Lords. The class structure of Gallifreyian society has never been entirely clear; the show seems to fluctuate back and force on the question of whether all Gallifreyian’s Time Lords. The Doctor seems to treat the destruction of Gallifrey as the death of all Time Lords, but it’s also been suggested that Time Lord is a title earned through graduating the Academy.

It's not easy being green...

It’s not easy being green…

Either way, there’s a clear history for using Time Lords as a metaphor for the upper class. In The Deadly Assassin, Robert Holmes’ portrayal of Gallifrey was heavily influenced by the atmosphere of British universities; a comparison that Douglas Adams carried over to his script for Shada. There’s a sense that the Time Lords have always been upper class, presiding over the universe but remaining far too evolved and cultured to get their own hands dirty. Gallifrey is a planet occupied by senior civil servants, professors and the judiciary. The Doctor and the Master are both senior academic titles, after all.

So Davies is hardly innovative in his evocation of Gallifrey’s class structure. Rassilon makes it clear that Time Lord is a title rather than the name of the race, using such strange descriptors as “my Lord Doctor” and “my Lord Master”, evoking the sort of stilted and rigid formality one expects in upper crust life. His plan hinges on the Time Lords “ascending” while the lower races burn, the ultimate act of class warfare. Davies also cements both the Doctor and the Master as part of this class structure. We know the Doctor had a nickname at college, with “theta sigma” evoking the naming conventions of American college fraternities.

Think of what they might accomplish if they put their heads together...

Think of what they might accomplish if they put their heads together…

However, Davies takes it a step further. He confirms something that had been implicit in those classic episodes. The Doctor and the Master are both members of the upper class who seem to have got a bit lost on their gap year, and ended up slumming it among the stars. The Master recalls his own childhood, when he lived in high standing. “I had estates. Do you remember my father’s land back home? Pastures of red grass, stretching far across the slopes of Mount Perdition. We used to run across those fields all day, calling up at the sky. Look at us now.”

Davies strongly hints that the Doctor is closely related to a member of Gallifrey’s High Council of the Time Lords, without really confirming what that relationship is. Given that Gallifrey doesn’t seem the most open or democratic of societies, and is unlikely to have great social mobility, it seems likely the the Doctor himself would have been sitting on the High Council had he remained on the planet. (He still wound up Lord President.)

Almost the Last of the Time Lords doesn't have a ring to it...

Almost the Last of the Time Lords doesn’t have a ring to it…

Like the revelation about “the untempered schism” in The Sound of Drums, Davies hints at a possible origin story for the Doctor – but without confirming anything one way or the other. If The Sound of Drums suggested that the Doctor ran from Gallifrey to protect Susan from the vortex, then The End of Time makes it clear that the Doctor is running from his own responsibility; from his position in Time Lord high society and the obligations that might be waiting for him. He isn’t some random guy who stole a TARDIS, he’s somebody important who wanted to be anonymous.

At the same time, Davies realises that there’s no point offering anything particularly concrete. It would just hem the show in, and there’s no point forcing his successor to try to explain it away if it doesn’t stick. Davies doesn’t want his legacy on the show to be the equivalent of the infamous “half-human” line from The TV Movie, the kind of thing that follow-up writers have spent decades trying to tie up. Best leave it all unsaid. It’s more fun for fans to digest and speculate it. If they don’t like it, they can choose not to interpret it that way.

"Yep, Google confirms we're definitely in this episode..."

“Yep, Google confirms we’re definitely in this episode…”

That way, later writers can use it if they want to, without being explicitly bound to it. It’s quite similar to the approach that Davies adopts with the gap between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time. He makes it clear that the Doctor has embarked upon a series of adventures in that narrow space of time. He’s practically inviting tie-in writers and spin-offs to fill that gap, creating a sizeable chunk of time where the Tenth Doctor can live forever.

This is somewhat contrary to Moffat’s approach to the show. Davies tends to appreciate the big gaping holes in the show’s canon, and recognises that these lacunas exist to provide infinite storytelling potential. It’s fun for fans to chew over the gap between The TV Movie and Rose. It’s nice to have a bit of space into which other stories can be comfortably slotted. After all, that was one of the thrills of the expanded universe, trying to rationalise away all these gaps and inconsistencies.

Simm-ply Master-full...

Simm-ply Master-full…

Moffat’s approach is very much the opposite. Moffat does not like gaps. Instead, he likes to fill them. The Day of the Doctor fills both the gap between The TV Movie and Rose, but also between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time. Even Moffat’s expanded universe material is all about plugging gaps, with his short story Continuity Errors providing a solid logical justification for the show’s occasional continuity inconsistencies. It’s telling that it was Moffat who finally showed the Time War, and who boasted about having a “complete set” of regenerations.

The End of Time is a very flawed piece of television, as a result of the forces pulling it so many directions all at once. At the same time, it is a very ambitious work. You can see what Davies was trying to do, and there’s a wealth of interesting ideas powering The End of Time. It just feels everything is really rushed, as if Davies is stuffing the show with as much material as he can. The result is somewhat bloated and unsatisfying, but with moments of brilliance.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: